2009 Automotive Preview

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Even though we’re just beginning the 2008 calendar year, several 2009 model year cars and trucks will be here long before the next New Year officially arrives.

Here’s a look at what’s on deck for spring, summer and fall 2008:

2009 Honda FCX Clarity

Honda gets the nod for being the first automaker to offer a vehicle powered by a hydrogen fuel cell to the general public. The FCX Clarity sedan is propelled by a 134 horsepower electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack charged up by a 148 pound,100 kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell stack — no gasoline (or internal combustion of any kind) is involved.

Unlike a conventional electric car, the FCX does not need to be plugged in to recharge itself; it also produces no harmful emissions, since the fuel cell’s major byproduct is water vapor. The FCX is capable of delivering an impressive 68 miles per gallon on the highway — which is better performance than the best gas-electric hybrids currently on the market.

Initially, the FCX will be available only in the Southern California region — mainly because there are only a handful of hydrogen refueling facilities currently open to the public, all of them in/around LA. But the fact that the FCX is available at all is strong evidence that the hydrogen economy may be a lot closer than the 20 years away predicted by skeptics.

Base price: $600/month lease; Available: Summer ’08

2009 Toyota Corolla

The ever-popular Corolla sedan is heavily revised for 2009, beginning with an sleek new body that’s quite a departure from the conservative styling of previous years. This is good news for younger buyers, who will probably be happy with the sporty flavor. But it’s arguably risky for Toyota in terms of the over-30 crowd, who may prefer something more subdued.

Other important updates include a new optional engine, a 2.4 liter, 158 horsepower four-cylinder shared with the Camry. The base engine will be the same 1.8 liter, 126 horsepower four-cylinder used previously. Buyers who need a bit more room — and better all-weather grip — may want to take a look at the Corolla’s cousin, the Matrix. It shares a basic platform with the Corolla — but unlike the front-wheel-drive Corolla, the Matrix offers an available all-wheel-drive system.

Base Price: $16,000; Est. Available: Spring 2008

2009 Ford Flex

The Flex is a heavily styled full-size wagon with a boxy profile and room for seven. It replaces the recently cancelled (and slow-selling) Freestar minivan — offering similar functionality and roominess in a dramatically different shape.

Flex comes standard with the same 3.5 liter V-6 used in the current Taurus sedan, with power expected to be in the 260-265 hp range. Standard models will be front-wheel-drive — but an all-wheel-drive system will be optional.

This neat-looking vehicle will offer some unusual features and amenities such as an oversized sunroof, built-in refrigerator and modular seating with second row footrests. Ford’s new Sync electronics system (which integrates all in-car entertainment and communication systems with portable electronics, such as cell phones and iPods, etc.) should add to the techno-hip vibe.

Base price: $23,500; Est. Available: Summer 2008

2009 VW Microbus

While the cosmetics and overall theme harken back to the Hippie-era Microbus, one thing the modern Microbus won’t have in common with the original is lethargic acceleration. The old Microbus was infamous for being horrendously underpowered, having to rely on the same basic air-cooled horizontally-opposed four-cylinder engine that propelled the Beetle — but weighing considerably more and being far less aerodynamic.

Though final specifications were not available at the time of this writing, expect the ’09 Microbus to be at least as quick as other modern seven passenger vans — and (hopefully) available with a diesel engine. (VW will be returning diesel engines to its lineup this year in several other models, including the Passat and Jetta sedans.) A diesel Microbus would offer much better fuel economy potential than any gas-powered van on the market — and be very much in tune with the eco-friendly vibe of the original Microbus.

Base Price: $22,000; Est. Available: Fall 2008

2009 Nissan Murano

This handsome sport-crossover is a great alternative to either a minivan or a traditional mid-sized SUV — offering a nice balance of sporty handling and looks, roomy interior and not-so-bad fuel economy.

For 2009, the Murano gets updated with freshened exterior, revised interior — with new features and options such as a 9.3 gigabyte hard drive to store music, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth wireless hookup — and the latest generation of Nissan’s excellent “forward looking” navigation system. Instead of a display that looks like a conventional grid map, the Nissan system gives you a graphical overlay of the road ahead, which constantly updates as the vehicle moves. The view you get is similar to what you’d see in an airplane flying at about 1,000 feet — and gives you a very realistic impression of where you are in relation to everything else around you.

Base price: $29,500; Est. Available: Spring/Summer 2008

2009 Dodge Ram 1500

The Ram 1500’s iconic “mini-Kenworth” theme will be retained — but smoothed out, with grille and headlight assemblies tightly integrated into the fenders and hood for improved aerodynamics and a more modern overall look. Locking, water-proof cubbies for tool storage and so on will be built into the bed area — and there’s a new-design coil spring rear suspension designed to improve ride quality yet still be tough enough to allow for lots of weight in the bed and near class-leading trailer/towing capability. Major work has also been done to upscale the interior — an absolute necessity in the wake of the recent redesigns of GM and Ford’s full-size trucks, which are now as luxurious and carefully crafted as many luxury sedans.

Probably the biggest improvement, though, will be the incorporation of the latest cylinder deactivation technology (which first appeared in passenger cars such as the 300C) to improve fuel economy by as much as 10 percent or more.

An updated version of the Cummins turbodiesel V-8 will also be available — and there is a rumor that Dodge may even offer a smaller six-cylinder diesel (also built by Cummins) as an option.

Base price $22,000; Est. Available: Fall 2008/Spring 2009

2009 BMW 335d

The 335d is a diesel-burning version of BMW’s popular entry-level luxury-sport sedan. Unlike previous diesel offerings from VW and Mercedes-Benz, which were not available in all 50 states due to problems meeting existing emissions control requirements, the 335d will be offered in ever state and is fully compliant with even California’s tough smog laws.

Featuring Variable Twin Turbos (one to enhance low-speed power; another for high-end horsepower) and common rail direct injection, the diesel 3 liter six develops massive torque — 425 lbs.-ft. at just 1,750 RPM, or just off idle speed. This is superior to most large gas burning V-8s — and provides the energy for sports car 0-60 runs in the six second range but without the 15 mpg that would typically come with the keys to a big V-8. BMW says the diesel six should be able top deliver 33 mpg on the highway — or comparable to the performance of gas-burning compact economy cars like the Honda Civic.

BMW will also be offering diesel power in the X5 SUV; the same engine will be used and in the heavier, larger SUV still delivers enough power to get to 60 mph in just over 7 seconds while returning 25 mpg on the highway.

Base price: $42,000; Est. Available: Spring/Summer 2008

2009 Hyundai Genesis

Two things no Hyundai has ever offered before will define the all-new Genesis sedan — an available V-8 engine and rear-wheel-drive. But unlike similar-in-layout offerings from European and Japanese prestige brands such as Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, the Genesis will be priced under $30,000 to start — making it one of the most affordable cars of this type available from any automaker.

The Genesis is generously-sized, riding on a 115.6-inch “big car” wheelbase — and measuring close to 198 inches long overall. That means it’s comparable in dimensions to large American sedans such as the recently-discontinued Ford Crown Victoria. But unlike the big Vic, the Genesis is a fully modern design and so should offer ride, handling and overall feel more comparable to high-dollar full-size import sedans such as the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Lexus LS and BMW 5-Series.

Just for a lot less money.

Base price: $29,500; Est. Summer/Fall 2008


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